"Where there's a demand, China will supply it."
"Everything that appeals to some people in the world needs some people to produce it. We are allowing people to buy what they want, and we care about that."
"The reason people buy WoW gold is the same reason they pay people to wash their car - they would rather spend money than do it themselves"
Being paid to play games all day long sounds like a dream job - but for thousands of Chinese gold farmers, the virtual reality is sheer hard graft. Recently The Guardian posted a survey about the Chinses gold farmers' current living status.
Li is just one of more than 100 workers employed by Wow7gold, an internet-based company that makes more than 1m pounds a year selling in-game advantages to World of Warcraft players. Customers may ask for their avatar's skill level to be increased ("power levelling"), or for a virtual magic sword or precious ore to be obtained. As one player put it: "Where there's a demand, China will supply it."
For thousands of Chinese workers such as Li, "gold farming" is a way of life. Workers can expect to earn between 80-120 pounds a month which, given the long hours and night shifts, can amount to as little as 30p an hour. After completing his shift, Li is given a basic meal of rice, meat and vegetables and falls into a bunk bed in a room that eight other gold farmers share. His wages may be low, but food and accommodation are included.
These virtual industries sound surreal, but they are fast entering the mainstream. According to a report by Richard Heeks at Manchester University, an estimated 400,000 Asian workers are now employed in gold farming in a trade worth up to 700m pounds a year. With so many gamers now online, these industries are estimated to have a consumer base of five million to 10 million, and numbers are expected to grow with widening internet access.
These figures mean big business. The gold farming industry may be about playing games, but these companies take their work seriously. At Wow7gold, a sophisticated division of labour splits workers into different departments, including production, sales, advertising and research. What's interesting about this "virtual division of labour" is that traditional concepts of "men's work" and "women's work" still apply. While young, largely unskilled "playbourers" such as Li spend their days toiling in the virtual field, highly skilled female graduates receive higher salaries working as customer service operators.
Eva Yuan is one such operator. A 26-year-old graduate who speaks three languages, she has been working in the white-collar departments of Wow7gold for more than a year. Each day she helps more than 100 customers, placing orders and answering queries. "Most of our customers are from America but they are people of all ages and careers," she says. "The biggest transaction I have seen was one person who bought 100,000 gold, which costs 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. For me this is a lot of money but for them it is not."
After leaving university, Yuan was unable to find employment in the "real" economy. Now, the 250 pounds she makes every month at Wow7gold allows her - with a bit of help from her parents - to support her one-year-old son.
"We face unemployment in some areas and China has a large population so the challenge is severe," she says. "These firms provide the employee with a place to live and money to earn. When I came there were just 100 employees, now there are over 130. This is a new and innovating area for the economy". I ask Yuan whether she thinks her job is worthwhile. "Everything that appeals to some people in the world needs some people to produce it. We are allowing people to buy what they want, and we care about that."
Last year, the Chinese government acknowledged the rising significance of gold farming by introducing a 20% tax on the industry. But regulations on working hours, salaries, holidays and medical fees have not been extended with it. Yuan may be proud of her job, but she admits the long, unregulated hours are taking their toll. "The government should lay down the law. I would consider staying if conditions improved, but the game world is not a real career for me," she says.
With no regulatory oversight, the working conditions in gold farms vary massively. Yuan is one of the lucky ones. Anthony Gilmore, an independent filmmaker, has been investigating the industry as part of a documentary he is making, Play Money, which he hopes to release by the end of the year (playmoneyfilm.com). He has collected footage of firms in the middle of nowhere, where bunk beds sprawl alongside computers in the middle of freezing and dirty offices.
Thousands of miles away, western consumers are driving these industries, pumping hard-earned cash into products and services that exist only in fantasy lands. I ask Jamie el-Banna, a 24-year-old gamer from the UK, what makes him spend his money on these sites.
"The reason people buy gold is the same reason they pay people to wash their car - they would rather spend money than do it themselves" he says.
"You could spend time farming gold, say, 20 real-life hours. Or you could go to work for two hours and earn the money to buy the gold. If I'm playing I want to play, not do boring tasks. Go back some years, and a job involving a computer was a skilled job. Nowadays, keyboards and mice are the new ploughs and shears."
But does he ever consider the conditions of the workers supplying these services?
"I don't think about the workers. I think about the product. I'm sure the wage that gold farmers are paid is low. Manual labourers in third-world countries probably earn a similar amount, but I doubt you would ask someone this kind of question if you saw them drinking a cup of coffee."
At present, the vast majority of gold farming takes place in developing countries, with four-fifths of production estimated to take place in China. The jury is still out on whether this industry is spawning a new generation of "virtual sweatshops" or whether it is a massive opportunity for countries seeking to develop through the hi-tech economy.
Heeks, an avid gamer himself, believes that "development agencies and governments need to wake up to gold farming".
"It's big business - hundreds of thousands of Asian workers; hundreds of millions of dollars - that has been flying under the radar," he said. "We need to start paying attention to these opportunities."